Art's disappearing act, and the conservationist's fight to stop it

There's a silent thief stealing away with millions of dollars of art work each year. The thief's name? Poor conservation.

In museums and private collections across the country, a historical inheritance is being lost to an often invisible enemy: the affects of time, environment, and poor management.

''The conservation needs of this country are gargantuan,'' comments David Shute, executive director of the National Conservation Advisory Council.

Remarks Paul Perrot, assistant secretary for museum programs at the Smithsonian: ''There are weak places everywhere. The resources are not available to do what needs to be done. The trained personel doesn't exist. And the priority that should be attached to conservation -- though it is increasingly recognized -- is not recognized broadly enough. Certainly not at the necessary level by those who might assist in the funding.''

This bleak view is held by many conservation insiders who place the blame for a deteriorating art heritage on the twin problems of inadequate manpower and poor funding.

''There aren't enough people who are training,'' says Thomas Freudenheim, museum program director of the National Endowment for the Arts. ''What's happened in the past few years is an increasing awareness and increasing sensitivity to the need for conservation. More places want to do it, and the needs are endless.''

It wasn't until the 1970s that the number of training programs for conservators expanded from one to three, with about 30 trained professionals graduating annually. This is considered to be far from enough.

As for money, there doesn't seem to be enough of it, especially for many modest-sized museums that often have small but valuable collections. Even the larger museums have trouble scraping together the necessary funds for conservation. And contributions are often hard to come by.

''It's difficult to explain conservation to the public,'' says Mr. Freudenheim. ''In many cases there's damage going on that isn't obvious, and it's always difficult to get people to give money for things that aren't easily evident. Who, for instance, wants their name on a door of a storage room. And yet museum storage is really important.''

To be sure, as long as there has been art there have been problems conserving it. But it has been only comparatively recently that much of the art world has heightened its concern about such mundane matters.

At the same time the factors threatening art have increased. Take pollution, for example. It is particularly damaging to outdoor art, such as sculptures. Increased demand on museums is another problem says Darryl Brown, until recently a museum program specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts (now grants officer for New York's Museum of Modern Art.)

''Many museums are causing wear and tear on their own collections (because paying for visiting exhibitions is so costly) and they are just now becoming aware of the need for conservation.''

But exactly what is conservation?

It's not just patching together battered art, but taking preventive measures to retard damage and deterioration, say conservators. ''What you are trying to do is to keep things in good shape and not just repair the damage,'' remarks Mr. Freudenheim.

Many musuems, however, have only the most elementary knowledge of conservation. Horror stories abound, including an account of how one museum that damaged valuable paintings by carelessly stacking them in a closet. Another museum used a powerful cleaning agent on a sculpture, realizing later that the cleaner removed more than just dirt.

But mishandling is only one part of the problem. There's also the slow deterioration of works from a variety of environmental factors.

Problem areas include high humidity, which can turn a valuable bronze sculpture, if not properly protected, into a chunk of rust. Frequent humidity and temperature variations make wood and canvas shrink and swell, transforming paintings into a crumbling mess.

Unfiltered sunlight and certain kinds of artificial light that slowly fade the pigments of paintings are villains too.

''Building climate control,'' according to Dr. L. van Zelst, director of research for the prestigious Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), ''especially into an existing museum, is unbelievably expensive.'' The MFA itself is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar climate-control project.

In the conservation area, he added, ''we could use many times the money we have, and that's not because the museum is stingy, but the museum can't afford more. That holds for every institution. And if a big institution like this one has difficulty meeting the bill for conservation, there's no doubt that everybody has problems, especially small institutions and historical societies.''

But according to experts, even the institutions that cannot afford expensive climate controls can take steps to protect works of art, by removing paintings from direct sunlight, for instance. Unfortunately, smaller and poorly funded operations are often unaware of these precautions.

It's not just venerable masterpieces that need attention. Modern art is particularly tough to preserve. According to James Bernstein, a chief conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, some paintings ''almost take on a sculptural quality. Never before have there been so many materials used in paintings.''

Among the materials Mr. Bernstein has encountered have been slabs of glass, fur, moving electrical parts, house paint, automotive lacquers, sand, and crayons.

Because of this, ''We've had to expand our approaches because the structures we encounter are so complex.''

In recent years, major funding for conservation has come from several sources. The National Endowment for the Arts is the biggest. The NEA will give out approximately $1.2 million for matching grants in fiscal 1982, somewhat down from last year's budget for conservation. Smaller amounts of money are dispensed by the Institute of Museum Services of the federal Department of Education and by the Smithsonian Institution under the National Museum Act of 1974.

In some areas where problems are the most challenging the picture is brightening.

Over the past decade, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, one of the few private donors making grants for conservation, has given out about $12 million for conservation.

Mellon Foundation money in particular has helped spawn a system of regional conservation centers to serve museums, historical societies, and other groups that cannot afford to support their own conservation laboratories.

Most importantly, it's been grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, targeted specifically for these conservation centers, that have spearheaded the drive. Over the past 10 years the number of regional labs has grown to about a dozen.

One example is the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center in Denver. According to Director Arne Hansen, the five-year-old organization now has a ''mixed bag'' of member organizations from a number of Western states. ''We have enough work to keep us busy forever, and that's because of a lack of good preservation practices.''

Mr. Hansen believes regional conservation centers are ''critical,'' but he also sees the need for similarly organized regional information centers.

''We need to get out and do more education to help museums with their collection care,'' remarks Hansen, who says: ''My experience has been that weak conservation practices are the rule rather than the exception.''

Another development that could eventually help art conservation is a plan by the National Conservation Advisory Council to create a national institute for conservation.

The proposal for an institute originally grew out of the National Museum Act. The institute would help coodinate conservation efforts for all types of cultural property. Although it would not physically give conservation assistance , it would provide a place to go for information about most conservation-related topics.

According to some experts in conservation, equiping museums with practical knowledge about how to preserve art could accomplish more than professional conservators will ever be able to do.

Arthur Beale, director of the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum and president of the National Conservation Advisory Council, says an important function of the institute would be to arouse public awareness of the need for conservation, both at institutions and in individual collections.

Remarks David Shute, executive director of the council: ''I can't estimate where the funding for the institution will come from, but I hope that at least 50 percent of it will come from the private sector.''

By late April, Shute estimates, the council will be releasing a proposal for an institute. It will then be hashed over by those in the conservation field. As for its disposition from there, says Shute, ''It's too premature to speculate.''

According to Mr. Perrot of the Smithsonian, ''We are in this business to perserve the best of the past, the most significant, and what makes the past understandable -- and to pass it on to future generations. If we don't do it, no one else will.''

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